Thursday, September 6, 2012

Hemmingway's Foxy Fib

As long as we're in the neighborhood, we'll hang a right out of Oswald's Bear Ranch and travel the road north a piece to take a moment beside the waters of a genuine American literary legend near the end of its run...

There's a robust library of fine literature to be made from works set around the Superior Basin, specifically the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Notably, this includes titles by John Voelker (who wrote as Robert Traver), Jim Harrison and...Ernest Hemingway.

Yeah, I know. Poppa's most famous for stories set anyplace other than the UP. Florida. Kilimanjaro. Spain and the bullfight arena -- can't hardly be any farther away from the UP than that.

But as a youth Ernest Hemingway spent quality time in the Northwoods of Michigan and from that experience he drew his Nick Adams stories. These are considered by many as pivotal to the greater understanding of Hemingway. Not the least reason I suppose being that they're so chock full of Nick's repeated declarations that he intends to make of himself the Greatest Writer on the Face of the Earth and so much for the common if too often commonly tissue thin wall between fiction & the writers who write it, eh?

The most honored of these works, at any rate the one that edged Hemmingway into consideration as a writer about freshwater fishing is his story Big Two-Hearted River, widely considered one of the gems of this rich & curious genre.

Except that there's no "Big" Two-Hearted River in Michigan. What's there is simply Two Hearted, no Big, no hyphen.

And it wasn't the river Hemmingway wrote about, regardless.

In Voelker's classic collection Trout Madness is an essay titled Hemingway's Big Two-Hearted Secret. Originally published in 1974, Voelker questioned in print the veracity of Hemmingway's title in the manner typical to his body of work, which is to say cogent, wry and deeply informed. Voelker's essay should be read alongside Hemmingway's famous story as compliment to the piece, one famous trout fisherman to the other, and especially as answer to the waves literary detectives who endlessly parsed the original.

After lacerating the aforementioned academics...

For, invariably following their summer pilgrimages, there presently flutters upon the world a new spate of annotated papers, inevitable as the falling snow, uncovering brand new layers of neglected symbolism found lurking in Nick's story as well as usually unveiling another route he took to get from Seney to his Shangri-La.

...Voelker describes the costs of literary fame, levied on the Two Hearted River:

Today...the once remote and obscure Two Hearted River has become a sort of combined literary shrine and tourist mecca.

It's a clear case of a story making a river famous in fact that steps are being taken to save the river from the clutches of those modern brigands (who, with our helpless passion for kidding ourselves, we ever so elegantly prefer calling developers) bent upon demonstrating their unappeasable hunger for literature by lining the river's banks with everything from prefabricated cardboard fishing "lodges" to sylvan trailer courts on down to canoe liveries and only God knows what else.

Then, after thoroughly laying out the case, almost offhandedly he beats all those literary trail hunters at their own game, by pointing out a simple fact they'd not cared to notice:

Nick several times says he hiked northerly from Seney and hit the river by bearing left, whereas the Two Heart would simply have to be many miles to his right.

In his essay, John Voelker only nods towards the actual river of Hemingway's story, which is today commonly acknowledged to be the Fox, mountains of earnest literary analysis aside. He remained discrete because there's a code amongst the best fishermen, shared by Hemingway and Voelker alike, in his essay summed up by John Voelker thusly:

Finally it strikes this fisherman as requiring no very profound insight to guess that the author of "Big Two-Hearted River" would no more publically expose the identity of his own precious trout water than he would that of an adored woman he'd slept with.

Well, maybe Voelker didn't have quite so much in common with Hemmingway after all, eh?

Anyway, if you read Hemingway's Big Two-Hearted River and pay close attention to the writer's evocative descriptions of landscape which are, after all, the heart of the piece and then take the time to actually visit both the Two Heart and the Fox, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that only one of these rivers fits Hemingway's description and that it ain't the Two Heart.

Indeed, the pine barrens river lyrically described by Hemingway as surrounded by wet meadows and broken by beaver damns while he camped happily amongst the remaining pines so near the once famous logging town of Seney remains relatively untrammeled and along its way you can find places very much like where Nick stayed:

Kinda makes one wonder exactly what it was all those literary scholars were looking at, once hot on the trail of Hemingway Myth and hot to make an academic name for themselves on the back of the writer's fame.

What's true is that reading for comprehension wasn't their strong suit. Not the reading of literature and certainly not the reading of the landscape upon which they once descended in droves.

I get that truth isn't often allowed to get in the way of ambition, academic or otherwise. Evidence of that is scattered throughout the Superior Basin.

But still...

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